Election 2019, the NDP: One More Rung Up the Ladder

The NDP took a pounding on election night, but it has a crucial swing vote in a minority House thanks to what Brian Topp calls a “sparkling leader’s tour” by Jagmeet Singh. NDP photo


Brian Topp

Oct. 23, 2019

After having the progressive rug pulled out from under it by Justin Trudeau — with an assist from Tom Mulcair —in 2015, the New Democratic Party is in a perfect position to build on Jagmeet Singh’s acclaimed campaign performance by leveraging the balance of power in Parliament.

In 2014, the British Columbia NDP met to review a post-mortem report into its 2013 provincial election campaign. The party had won only 39.71 per cent of the vote in that election, and had only re-elected all of its sitting MLAs, forming the official opposition. This result, the investigators knew, was totally unacceptable and easily avoidable. In summary, the party would have won the election had the campaign not been directed by an idiot. That idiot wasn’t invited to attend, but a few of the delegates made sure he got the message by shouting at him in airports for a few months after these deliberations.

That idiot was me, so you’ll understand that I watched all of this with mixed feelings. But there was a lot to like about that post-mortem discussion. Specifically, the determination to win. The BC NDP was telling itself that even though it had just brutally and foolishly gated its popular and talented leader, Carole James, and even though its caucus had split and temporarily expelled a third of its members on the eve of a campaign year, it still expected to win government. They didn’t think of themselves as the conscience of the legislature. They weren’t running to stand up for things or to ensure a message was heard, or to occupy a far corner of the legislature to agitate powerlessly for the non-negotiable demands of a group of NGOs. They wanted to remove the BC Liberal Party from office in a general election and to replace it, putting the state to work for working people.

That is what all serious political parties owe voters, in every election. There was a happy ending in BC. The party added 0.58 per cent to its vote in the 2017 election (scoring 40.29 per cent), which just goes to show how much better you can do when you work with good people. And then they came into office through a confidence and supply agreement with the BC Green Party that has given the province a smiling, positive, progressive, productive and clean B.C. NDP government under Premier John Horgan that is doing exactly what that party had always hoped to do — put the state to work for working people. The economy is booming and the budget is in excellent shape under Finance Minister Carole James. The toughest issues facing the province are finally being addressed. Health and education and the province’s other public services are finally in good hands.

Proving, once again, that insisting on victory is exactly right. With this in mind, what are New Democrats to make of the 2019 federal campaign? A campaign in which the federal NDP’s vote dropped from 19.71 per cent to 15.90 per cent (more than a 20 per cent drop)? In which the federal caucus was once again decimated, dropping from 39 to 24 (a 40 per cent drop, following the 60 per cent drop in 2015 under Mulcair)? In which the party was heartbreakingly wiped out in Atlantic Canada, save for a personal victory by the redoubtable Jack Harris? And heartbreakingly wiped out in Quebec, save for a personal victory by the redoubtable Alexandre Boulerice? And wiped out in the GTA without a single win? And in most of Ontario? And across the prairies, losing seats in Saskatchewan that have voted Farmer/labour-CCF-NDP with few breaks since the 1920s, save for personal victories in Winnipeg and Edmonton by rising stars like Daniel Blaikie and Heather McPherson? And winning only 24.4 per cent of the vote in NDP-governed BC, losing three seats?

Well, we can guess what the 2013 BC postmortem and those cheery delegates in airports would say. But what I’ll say is this: it was actually a pretty good result. Federal campaign director Jennifer Howard — an experienced, crafty, warm, thoughtful and smart former finance minister from Manitoba — and her team made about the best of a brutally bad hand, and played some very bad cards just about as well as they could have. Led by some spectacular work by Jagmeet Singh, who just made the federal NDP his party.

In the 2015 election, the NDP threw away the Layton legacy and returned to third party status by promising to continue Stephen Harper’s austerity policies. The federal party then had a choice: it could embrace and double down on the author of that austerity promise — Thomas Mulcair — or it could remove him and find a better leader. Instead, the federal NDP decided to do both simultaneously — repudiating and removing Mulcair (the first time in Canadian history a federal party leader has been fired by majority vote at a national convention), and then foolishly allowing him to shout his way into serving out most of the term anyway, as a defeated and then fired parliamentary zombie leader. Forgotten, but not gone. In the result, the federal caucus spent almost a full term comatose, as far as the public could see. Fundraising collapsed; candidate recruitment and local campaigning were suspended… and then this legacy was handed to Jagmeet Singh, finally elected as the new federal NDP leader. As I wrote for Policy before the election, most of the negative reviews aimed at Singh during the early months of his leadership were premature. The public hadn’t looked at him yet. They would do that during his first campaign. So, they did. And the people of Canada like Jagmeet Singh a lot. Having taken a look at his cheerful optimism, crackling energy, unembarrassed progressivism, and fascinating combination of Sikh garb and smart-lawyer/hoser-from-Barrie colloquial Canadian speaking style, Canadians now give Singh the kind of positives they last expressed for Jack Layton.

Singh took his offer to Canadians across the country in a sparkling leader’s tour. A desperately improvised, last-possible-minute full slate could not start to make up for four lost years of local campaigning. But they were an impressive, young, gender-balanced, and diverse set of candidates — like the new NDP caucus that Canadians elected and are sending to Ottawa. Spinners point to Singh’s debate performance and dignified response to the Trudeau blackface revelation as defining moments that saved the party and the campaign. I think he really saved the party a few months before, when he released its platform — a pitch-perfect appeal to the party’s core voters, reassuring them the tribe had not permanently lost its mind and had not been intellectually captured by its opponents. New Democrats were pleased to hear this; pleased to see a return to the tone of the Layton years — and so the underlying strength and resilience of the NDP in Canada — and its limits — was demonstrated at the ballot box.

Political parties are hard to kill, unless they kill themselves. Both in BC and at the federal level, the NDP gave that a try — and then did what they had to do to land on their feet, despite their previous best efforts to destroy themselves. And so, the federal NDP went some steps up the ladder before it. The first step up the ladder was to avoid its widely predicted fate, by retaining party status and not being replaced in their spot on the Canadian political spectrum by the Green Party. They kept party status; the Greens remain far from that crucial designation.

The second step up the ladder was to elect a sufficiently large and diverse caucus that it could do good political work in Parliament. This caucus is a good one, full of bright, energetic new MPs in the style of their leader, and with pleasingly few hipster-populist, lefter-than-thou candidates who would have prevented it from functioning. The third step up the ladder was to win a balance-of-power position in a minority Parliament. And unlike Jack Layton and his team in any of his elections, they did. In that sense, this 24-member NDP caucus is much more empowered, potentially powerful, and in a position to advance government in Canada than Layton’s caucuses were.

Really, that’s pretty nice work. But it’s not victory. Victory is winning the election and forming government. Having rather elegantly and artfully dodged bullets and landed on its feet to general astonishment, the disheartening desert of that electoral map lies before the NDP. Singh is, essentially, back to where Layton was in 2004 — but with a much better parliamentary hand. So, having played his cards superbly well in this campaign, he now needs to do the same in this minority Parliament.

Brian Topp is a partner at KTG Public Affairs, a fellow at the Public Policy Forum, a director on the board of the Broadbent Institute, and is teaching a course at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. He served as chief of staff to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.